Listening, Dignity, and the Ideological Divide

If you want to increase your effectiveness in expanding the viewpoint of people with racially problematic viewpoints in your circle of contacts, you are going to have learn how to use skills related to empathetic listening and dialogue. People will rarely move toward your views if they feel that you are making no attempt to understand them. In our contentious national climate, racism skeptics often feel like they are not afforded basic dignities within conversations.

This perception is not wihout merit, given the way that anti-racism allies – who usually (but not always) are on the progressive side – talk to racism skeptics, who usually (but not always) are on the conservative side.

Extending dignity is a vital but overlooked precursor to persuasion. Harvard scholar Donna Hicks, who has done diplomatic and conflict resolution work around the world, says that ”Dignity is the desire to be treated well. It is an unspoken human yearning that is at the heart of all conflicts, yet no one is paying attention to it..” Hicks’ years of experience teach her that the key to shifting people to a mindset of collaborative problem solving around an on-going conflict is to make them feel that their dignity is being acknowledged by the other side.

But what exactly is dignity?

One definition of dignity is “the quality of being worthy of esteem or respect.” Hicks goes further and says that dignity actually has 10 component elements:

  • Acceptance of Identity — Approach people as neither inferior nor superior to you; Assume they have integrity.
  • Recognition — Validate others for their talents, hard work, thoughtfulness, and help; give credit to others for their contributions, ideas and experience.
  • Acknowledgment — Give people your full attention by listening, hearing, validating and responding to their concerns and what they have been through.
  • Inclusion — Make others feel that they belong at all levels of relationship (e.g. family, community, organization, nation).
  • Safety — Put people at ease at two levels: physically, where they feel free of bodily harm; and psychologically, where they feel free of concern about being shamed or humiliated, so that they feel free to speak without fear of retribution.
  • Fairness — Treat people justly, with equality, and in an evenhanded way, according to agreed upon laws and rules.
  • Independence — Empower people to act on their own behalf so that they feel in control of their lives and experience a sense of hope and possibility.
  • Understanding — Believe that what others think matters; give them the chance to explain their perspectives, express their points of view; actively listen in order to understand them.
  • Benefit of the Doubt — Treat people as trustworthy; start with the premise that others have good motives and are acting with integrity.
  • Accountability — Take responsibility for your actions; if you have violated the dignity of another, apologize; make a commitment to change hurtful behaviors.

Clearly, racism undermines the dignity of people of color.

Ironically though, if you are going to influence skeptics who deny the reality of racism, you must look at how well you afford racism skeptics dignity. Too often, white allies’ interactions with racism skeptics are missing some key elements of dignity. Specifically:

  • Acceptance of identity – Too often, anti-racist advocates don’t accept the validity of people who have identities connected to what we see as bound up with racism, such as the identity of “political conservative.”
  • Acknowledgement – Too often, anti-racist advocates respond in ways that don’t make people with racially conservative views feel heard.
  • Safety – Too often, anti-racist advocates quickly label racially skeptical views as “racist” or “white supremacist.” Within progressive racial discourse, these terms are used to signify the pervasive racism that has been used to divide and oppress people of color for hundreds of years. Within mainstream parlance, these terms stand for old-fashioned KKK level bigotry. This disconnect on language has serious consequences.
  • Understanding – Too often, anti-racist advocates too often don’t actively listen to racial skeptics, and approach conversations about race from a place of a hunger to “explain the truth” to them instead of taking in how the skeptic sees the situation.
  • Benefit of the doubt –Too often, when advocates try to “prove” that unconscious bias affects many people, they do not say this is true of themselves. As a result, skeptics feel that accused of not having good motives and are not acting with integrity.

Some questions to ask yourself about how you engage racism skeptics:

  • Do you have a bias (at least a subtle one) against people on the opposite side of the ideological divide from you? If so, how does this bias affect you?
  • Do you have a pattern of denying dignity, even in your own mind, to people who you have assessed have racially problematic views? How does this denying affect your interactions?